“Our apprehension numbers are off the charts,” Carla Provost, chief of the Border Patrol, said in testimony to senators in Washington on Wednesday afternoon. “We cannot address this crisis by shifting more resources. It’s like holding a bucket under a faucet. It doesn’t matter how many buckets we have if we can’t turn off the flow.”
“My greatest concern is that we will no longer be able to deliver consequences and we will lose control of the border,” Provost said.
Trump has treated the monthly publication of border enforcement statistics as a performance index for his administration’s immigration policies. The steady drumbeat of bad news has left him fuming and his administration scrambling for solutions. Trump’s fury contributed to the removal of Kirstjen Nielsen as secretary of the Department of Homeland Security last month as part of a wider shake-up at the agency, with Trump vowing to go in a “tougher direction.”
Toughness, for Trump, includes the deployment of razor wire, thousands of U.S. soldiers and plans to build hundreds of miles of barriers, as well as threats to close the border entirely. But physical measures have done little to discourage Central Americans who are fleeing grim poverty, endemic violence and crop failures and see their relatives and neighbors successfully completing the journey to the United States.
White House officials have since turned to tightening the asylum claim process to make it more difficult for migrants to seek refuge in the country, have vowed to crack down on visa overstays and are considering several options that would allow the administration to detain families longer and deport migrants in the country illegally faster.
Yet the evidence of the U.S. immigration system being overwhelmed continues to build.
DHS officials for the first time this week said the agency is running out of space to jail single adult migrants, who arrived in April at the highest level in five years. One DHS official warned of a complete border breakdown if single adults who cross illegally can no longer be detained and deported.
DHS officials already have declared a “breaking point” for U.S. border agents and infrastructure, with court rulings and a crunch of detention space forcing them to release the vast majority of migrant family members and children into the interior of the United States. Border officials view single adult migrants as the one remaining demographic they can deter by “applying consequences.”
“If we were forced to release single adults, our prediction is you would see a draw or a flow that we’ve never seen before in our history,” the DHS official said.
May has historically been one of the busiest months of the year for illegal crossings, and officials say the number of migrants taken into custody has drifted even higher in the past 10 days. CBP made 5,075 arrests on Saturday, the highest one-day total since the numbers started climbing in 2017, officials said.
There was a relatively modest uptick in the rate of border interdictions last month — after a 35 percent jump from February to March — but U.S. officials are bracing for the numbers to go as high as 150,000 per month this summer if their deterrence efforts do not work.
The migrant families who cross the border appear to know that they have a relatively easy path to release into the United States, and they have been turning themselves over to U.S. agents, the first step in starting an asylum application process that protects them from quick deportation.
The share of those border-crossers who show up in large groups has put additional strain on U.S. agents. Border Patrol has taken in 135 large groups consisting of 100 or more migrants in the past seven months, 10 times the total during all of 2018, according to the latest statistics. On April 30, a group of 421 adults and children crossed in the El Paso area, the single-largest group CBP has ever seen, officials said.
Officials say many of the migrants continue to stream north from Guatemala and Honduras, countries where massive numbers of residents are fleeing extreme poverty and domestic perils.
“Guatemala and Honduras have seen over 1 percent of their total population migrate to the U.S. in the first seven months of this fiscal year,” acting homeland security secretary Kevin McAleenan, Nielsen’s replacement, said in a speech Tuesday that outlined his border strategy. “One department of Guatemala, Huehuetenango, has seen almost 35,000 of its residents — close to 3 percent of the population — migrate to the U.S. in that time frame.”
He cited a U.S.-funded Vanderbilt University study that found 1 in 4 Guatemalans are interested in emigrating. Of those who want to emigrate, 85 percent said the United States is their preferred destination, McAleenan said.
“That’s over 4 million Guatemalans who intend to migrate to the United States,” McAleenan said.
McAleenan has been working with Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, on an immigration bill that will contain provisions to overhaul the legal immigration system as well as measures to address the current crisis. McAleenan said it was part of “an aggressive and holistic strategy” that would require “working together” with Mexico and Central America to achieve results.
Trump has directed the State Department to sever aid to Central American nations in response to the border surge. At other moments of pique he has blasted Mexican leaders, saying they are “doing nothing” to deal with the wave of migration moving through their country.
The acting DHS secretary said his four-pillar plan includes legislative changes to “eliminate the magnet for the most vulnerable migrants,” as well as adding barriers, technology and personnel along the U.S.-Mexico border.
The third and fourth pillars, he said, would require partnerships with Mexico, to increase its immigration enforcement capacities, and with Central American leaders, to address “push” factors driving migrants to leave.
The White House last week said it would ask Congress for $4.5 billion in supplemental funding to cope with the border crisis, and the biggest share of those funds — $2.8 billion — would cover the cost of sheltering underage migrants who arrive without a parent or guardian. Last month, more than 8,800 “unaccompanied alien children” crossed the border.
CBP officials also have set up overflow tent camps at military sites in El Paso and the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas to alleviate dangerous overcrowding in Border Patrol holding cells.